There have never been so many people on the cusp of retirement, and financial advisors are circling them like sharks around a sardine run. The normally staid and sensible financial advertising imagery is giving way to flower-painted VW microbuses, long hair and lava lamps, richly underpinned by the evocative music of the 70’s. We are urged to believe that the person in the dark suit who wants up to 4% of our liquid assets annually in return for helping us to buy a stairway to heaven is just a grown-up hippie at heart, man, who can really relate to our values.
The training challenge is significant if the advisors’ behavior is to synch with the marketing message. Does the repositioning taught in class actually make it through to discussions with potential clients?
The nature of the business makes it very difficult for managers to observe and objectively evaluate those reporting to them. Training effectiveness can be inferred from actual sales results, prospect conversion rates, and before-and-after data mining studies. But if advisors are losing a lot of potential converts, such empirical data do not help to diagnose where (if at all) the training may have been deficient. So how can you be sure that the training is actually leading to on-the-job application?
One solution is to “mystery shop” for financial advice. Using mystery shopping to test customer interaction skills is a widespread approach in industries ranging from cars to cosmetics to coffee. The concept is simple: send someone in to do business and have them report back on the behavior encountered. It is typically used to target and remediate poor behavior in specific sales/service individuals, or to check up on the quality of management of establishments such as restaurants and retail outlets. It is rarely used to evaluate the effectiveness of training. That’s because mystery shopping tends to fall under the control of sales, marketing, or customer service departments who simply assume that training has done its job, and see implementation is a matter of personal choice or supervisor diligence. A direct link between individual on-the-job competence and training is rarely made by such departments, and training departments are reluctant to raise it.
For a wide range of customer contact skills at Level Three, secret shopping can tell us a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses of our training and its impact on behavior. It gives us unbiased feedback, from the perspective of a customer, on how well desired behavior patterns or skills are adopted. It can also tell us a lot about the environmental and systemic obstacles to application of the learning.
Yet trainers don’t often use it as part of their continuous improvement process. There are several reasons:
But it need not get higher than that, because you are looking for a diagnostic indication, not a statistically valid sample. You may only visit three or four dozen individuals, the same number you might pull into focus groups. And you may be able get your sponsoring department to help with the costs.
But when the time comes for organizational cut-backs, mystery shopping at Level Three might buy trainers a stairway to heaven; relying on Level One smile sheets may just be a highway to hell.